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Trump just said something truly unexpected on immigration

President Donald Trump, center, speaks during a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.
Jim Lo Scalzo | Pool Image via AP
President Donald Trump, center, speaks during a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.

Before President Donald Trump's speech to a Joint Session of Congress Tuesday night, several advance reports said he would use part of the address to offer some kind of compromise on immigration.

That didn't happen.

Instead, President Trump repeated his calls for a border wall, warnings about criminals crossing that border, and touching stories about Americans killed by illegal immigrants.

But then he said something truly unexpected; he made a call for returning American immigration policy to a merit-based selection process. And that's something we haven't had in more than 50 years. He made an economic and class-based argument for this policy:

"Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, will have many benefits: It will save countless dollars, raise workers' wages, and help struggling families — including immigrant families — enter the middle class," Trump said in his speech.

To understand the significance of this argument, it's important to look at the history. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson and Senator Ted Kennedy successfully worked to radically change our immigration policy from a merit-based, discretionary system to one that favored immigrants with some form of family ties to people already living in the United States. Supporters of that plan argued this was a more compassionate policy. Critics called it a crude attempt to create a new voting block for the Democrats. But there were concerns that bringing in unskilled immigrants based on family ties alone would depress wages and job opportunities for blacks and other poor Americans. Those arguments against the Johnson-Kennedy immigration policy from the left were drowned out by 50-plus years of massive voting majorities for the Democrats from those black and poorer Americans who were supposed to be hurt the most by that policy.

But now President Trump is making a play to resurrect this old argument and perhaps the better-than-expected results he logged in the election among blacks and Latinos are a sign this plan might just work... politically.

Economically, there's evidence that America's remaining merit-based immigration rules, especially the H1-B visa program, is a strong reason for U.S. technological greatness. Whether a broader merit-based immigration preference program that will include professions and skills other than just tech will give us similar benefits is open for debate. On the flip side, many economists have warned that strangling the current steady flow of low-skilled and low-cost immigrant workers will stifle almost all businesses in different ways. No matter how you stand on this Trump immigration ploy, it's an economic gambit.

But the key point is that President Trump has now planted a seed in the minds of Americans that his immigration policy may have more to do with quality than quantity. That's a different conversation about immigration than America has been having for what seems like decades. And it's been long overdue.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.